Labeling to Distract

Vermont, Maine, and Connecticut recently passed legislation requiring companies to label foods that contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients, and roughly half of all state legislatures are also considering doing so. While such labels are appealing, giving consumers the illusion of control when making purchasing decisions, the passage of labeling laws for genetically modified food are likely to have a modest impact on the American food system, which in recent decades has shifted toward genetically modified commodity crops.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 90 percent of all soybeans, more than 75 percent of cotton, and over 80 percent of corn are genetically modified. Food manufacturers use these crops and their derivatives, such as high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, soy lecithin, and vegetable oils, as ingredients in a vast array of processed foods. In addition, more than one-third of sugar used in the United States comes from genetically modified sources. At least 75 percent of all processed foods contain a genetically modified ingredient, according to conservative estimates.

Proponents of labeling note that we label food products even when the ingredients do not pose any health risks. For example, it is common to see religious preferences, such as Halal and Kosher statuses, as well as vegan and vegetarian ingredients, indicated on packages. They say that people have a right to know what’s in their food and that GM labeling gives discerning consumers choices.

But by labeling, people may believe that they have successfully insulated themselves from the problems of modern agricultural practices and may therefore lack motivation for organizing for change. As sociologist Andrew Szasz explains in his 2007 book Shopping Our Way to Safety, if individuals believe that they have shielded themselves from a perceived threat, there is a false sense of security.

With GM food labeling, the “protected” consumers would feel less urgency to push for the kind of regulatory controls needed to address structural issues in the food system, and regulators would have little incentive to defy the powerful influence of agribusiness. Therefore, labeling may impede the development of a significant mass of consumers who are committed to critical thinking about the American food system.

And labeling laws can only do so much. Rather than changing consumer behavior at the point-of-purchase, truly meaningful change must start long before products hit the shelves—in reforms that address the broad availability of diverse and nutritionally adequate sources of food, intellectual property, national sovereignty and colonialism, consolidation in the agricultural chain of production, and the regulation and management of environmental hazards.

Recommended Readings

  • Charles, Daniel. Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food (Perseus Publishing, 2002). Explores the how and why of the technology rather than making a pro or con argument.
  • Clapp, Jennifer A., and Doris A. Fuchs. Corporate Power in Global Agrifood Governance (MIT Press, 2009). Places corporate power in the center of worldwide agricultural governance.
  • Falkner, Robert, ed. The International Politics of Genetically Modified Food: Diplomacy, Trade and Law (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). Integrates political, economic and legal dimensions of the international politics of GM foods.
  • Nestle, Marion. Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002). Essential analysis of the intersections between science, politics, and industry.
  • Pinstrup-Andersen, Per, and Ebbe Schioler. Seeds of Contention: World Hunger and the Global Controversy over GM Crops. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Argues for the potential of GM crops to address agricultural problems in developing countries.
  • Schurman, Rachel, and William A. Munro. Fighting for the Future of Food: Activists Versus Agribusiness in the Struggle over Biotechnology (University of Minnesota Press, 2010). Shows why anti-GM activists were sometimes successful and why agribusinesses were successful in other circumstances.
  • Szasz, Andrew. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How We Changed from Protecting the Environment to Protecting Ourselves (University of Minnesota Press, 2007). Introduces the concept of an inverted quarantine as a form of political anesthesia that reduces willingness to participate in collective action.